Monday, September 21, 2009
Since its failure to get a proper theatrical release in 1981, Les Paumees Du Petit Matin (The Escapees) has been one of the hardest of all of Jean Rollin’s films to see. The film finally got granted a DVD release earlier this year (courtesy of Redemption) and, while it is quite a change of pace for the iconic director, fans will find that its pleasures for the most part outweigh its faults.
Shot just after the undervalued Night of the Hunted (1980), The Escapees again has Rollin focusing on two young women on the run. It is a subject that has occupied many of his films but, unlike say Requiem for a Vampire, there is almost nothing supernatural about The Escapees. It stands as the most realistic work from Rollin, a director almost always associated with the Fantastique.
Focusing on the developing friendship between two young girls who have just escaped from a mental institution, The Escapees catches Rollin at an odd period in his career. Stylistically as far away from his early dazzling Jean-Jacques Renon lighted works as possible, The Escapees is a cold and somber film that for at least the first hour works as Jean Rollin’s most straight ahead dramatic production.
The film had its genesis when Rollin’s producers asked him if he would again be willing to step away from the supernatural genre and attempt a more mainstream thriller. Signing up a professional but incompatible screenwriter, Rollin recalled in 1997’s essential Virgins and Vampires that the script handed to him was, “an incredible mess” filled with “clichés and platitudes of melodrama”. Recalling that he essentially worked with “two scripts in hand” Rollin began filming The Escapees on a typically minuscule budget just after Night of the Hunted wrapped in 1980.
Problems with the script are indeed more than evident on The Escapees. It is one of Rollin’s most episodic productions and it bounds along with seemingly no real sense of plot in mind. A troubling work, The Escapees succeeds for its first hour due to Rollin’s unmistakable visual qualities, and fans will delight in picking out quick references to the director's previous work. The film finally does run out of steam in its final forty minutes, and it ultimately feels like a rough sketch of something that might have turned out to be one of the director’s finest and most distinctive works.
Rollin himself called the The Escapees a “bit of a disaster” in Virgins and Vampires, but he noted, “certain scenes emerged” from the wreckage. He’s correct, as there is an undeniably hypnotic and haunting quality about the film that is unique to Rollin’s work. No one essays the sense of being lost and traveling to nowhere better than Rollin, and novice actors Laurence Dubas and Christiane Coppe turn in effective, if slightly naïve, performances as the two troubled young girls destined for doom. An odd scene in a makeshift traveling fair is a particular showstopper as well and stands as one of the strangest sections of film Rollin ever shot.
Dubas and Coppe are joined mostly by a cast of inexperienced actors Rollin would not use again. Exceptions are singer Louise Dhour (instantly identifiable from many of Rollins greatest films), constant collaborator in front of and behind the camera Nathalie Perrey, Rollin himself, and legendary Brigitte Lahaie, who is all but wasted in what basically amounts to a lengthy cameo in the film’s final botched act.
The Escapees benefits greatly from a fine if spare piano based score from frequent Rollin composer Philippe D’Aram, and Claude Becognee’s calculated and chilly photography gives the film a fitting if almost overly clinical look at times. Despite some fine work from many on the film, The Escapees remains a frustratingly inconsistent picture. Cathal Tohill and Pete Tombs would go so far as to call it a schizophrenic work in their wonderful Immoral Tales, but they would also note that "the beginning and end are pure Rollin" and "what is good in (The Escapees) is very good."
Redemptions DVD of Rollin’s hardest to find major film is a welcome if slightly mixed bag. Presented in a non-anaphoric 1.66 print featuring colors that are stable, if a little less vibrant than one would hope, and a stereo sound mix that suffers from a slight distorted inconsistency, this is still the best that The Escapees has ever looked and Redemption should be applauded for finally delivering it. Extras included a handful of trailers, a short still gallery and a terrific 30 minute interview with Rollin conducted in December of 08 that would alone make the disc worth purchasing. Filmed in his apartment and walking around Paris, the aging but still sharp Rollin is clearly having a wonderful time recalling his career and The Escapees to interviewer Rebecca Johnson. The director still has mixed feelings on the film, but time has taken away some of his harsher criticisms and he seems to look upon it now as more of a noble misfire than anything else.
The Escapees stands with neither the best nor the worst in Jean Rollin’s iconic filmography. A few stylistic nods to previous works aside though, it is quite different from anything else he shot before or since. The Escapees remains quite a welcome and essential purchase for fans of one of France’s most maverick filmmakers.